Figure 1: Belfry Windows with Anglo-Saxon Baluster Shafts at All Saints, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire
When looking at Anglo-Saxon churches there are 4 features to look out for:
- Belfry Windows
- Triangular-headed doorways or windows
- Strip-work on wall surfaces
- Long-and-short quoins – the corners of buildings with large, tall upright stones alternating with broad flat stones
It was Thomas Rickman in the early part of the 19th C who identified the different architectural styles of church buildings within a relevant historical time period. He observed the features listed above at the church of St. Peter’s at Barton-on-Humber. He noticed the features were absent from Norman buildings.
At Earl’s Barton one can see the features of an Anglo-Saxon church on the tower. The belfry windows are particularly elaborate. The stonework is impressive, demonstrating that a high-status individual or institution would have built it. It lies close to the remains of an earthwork enclosure, which may have enclosed a high-status Anglo-Saxon thegn’s hall.
The tower of All Saints church is circa second half of the 10th C (the rest of the church is later). From 959 to 975, Edgar the Peaceful reigned as king. Edgar, along with his chief adviser, Dunstan, were able to give stability to the united English Kingdom so that it did not splinter into sub-kingdoms with rival kings, as was the case in previous centuries. After Edgar’s death, Edward the Martyr was king from 975 until 978. He was only about 15 when he was murdered at Corfe Castle. It was then that Aethelred (as in the ‘unready’ – meaning ill-advised) reigned. It was during his reign that the conflict with the Danes became a serious problem again. It maybe that the tower at Earl’s Barton was built after Edgar when there were potential threats and a tower was a useful defence building as well as a church.
Earls Barton Church Tower – notice the strip-work, long-and-short quoins, triangle-headed window and belfry windows. Notice the doorway below the clock on the first storey. A ladder could be used to get into the tower in times of trouble. The top of the tower was put on in the 14th C. The strip-work possibly reflects the timber building of the 10th C.
The decoration of the exterior of the first storey of the tower is different in style and has its own access. It is possible that the tower had mixed use and the decoration for each storey changes according to its function. There is a reference from the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds where in the 11th C the sick son of a man called Aelfric is living in the tower of St. Benedict’s Church. It is possible the lack of Christian symbolism on the first storey could suggest something more secular. (Gittos, p. 200).
Definition from the Encyclopaedia Britannica
‘The term “baluster shaft” is given to the shaft dividing a window in Saxon architecture. In the south transept of the abbey at St Albans, England, are some of these shafts, supposed to have been taken from the old Saxon church. Norman bases and capitals have been added, together with plain cylindrical Norman shaft.’ (p. 297)
The analysis and associated typology created by Thomas Rickman provides help with identifying and dating church architecture. The baluster shafts or colonettes are a key feature that had importance and meaning to the Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps the idea of them came from seeing something similar in Rome from those who went on pilgrimage there. I find it curious that the balusters may have meant something symbolic to the Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons.
‘Church of All Saints’, Historic England List Entry 1054866,(1954),<https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1054866> [accessed 26 August 2019]
‘Earls Barton’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Volume 2, Archaeological Sites in Central Northamptonshire (London, 1979), pp. 39-43. British History Online <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/northants/vol2/pp39-43> [accessed 26 August 2019].
Gittos, Helen, Liturgy, Architecture and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013
Taylor, H. M. and Joan Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965)